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Hike Irvine: Top 10 Trails

While Irvine is rightly famed for its world-class schools, prestigious corporate headquarters, and fine dining and retail, the city is far from just concrete and glass. In fact, Irvine (which was mostly ranchland until the 1960s) and nearby communities boast extensive hiking trail networks with something to suit all levels of fitness, enthusiasm and time commitment. We visited 10 worth exploring.

HANGMAN’S MONUMENT

Don’t just show up in your boots and sunscreen for this 6-mile, sometimes challenging trek (1,800 feet of climbing elevation) to the site of one of Irvine’s darkest historical incidents. See, you’ll need to join an organized hike led by Irvine Ranch Conservatory-certified volunteers in order to visit the spot where, in 1857, two notorious bandits were summarily hanged by one General Andres Pico. The stone monument marking this grim event, surrounded by wildflowers and wonderful views, was lost beneath brush for decades, before the 2007 Santiago Fire scorched the area. Hikes begin close to Hwy. 241/Foothill Toll Rd., near the end of Presida Canyon.

For details of this and other Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks guided activities visit LetsGoOutside.org/activities.

BOMMER CANYON TRAIL

This 4.6-mile, moderately strenuous loop through historic Bommer Canyon is a staple of Irvine’s outdoorsy types, yet is still only gently trafficked much of the time (and is plenty wide enough to accommodate hikers and mountain bikers alike). Much of its 810-foot elevation gain happens in its furthest mile out, but this last steep stretch is so worth it for gasp-inducing views inland toward Saddleback Mountain and out over the twinkling Pacific and Catalina Island. Clean restrooms are available at the trailhead. Note that there are only 14 parking spaces at the 6400 Shady Canyon Dr. trailhead, but continue and make a left into Sunnyhill for more (starting your hike here will add 1.4 miles, roundtrip).

San Joaquin Marsh Figeater Beetle – Photo courtesy of Irvine Ranch Water District

SAN JOAQUIN MARSH & WILDLIFE SANCTUARY

Just blocks from John Wayne Airport and UC Irvine lurks 300-plus acres of freshwater wetlands which host more than 200 bird species and, in fine weather, numerous varieties of human walkers and runners. The 12 miles of meandering trails within the hidden haven of Irvine Ranch Water District’s San Joaquin Marsh – which is nearly two-thirds the size of New York’s Central Park – are best suited to leisurely wanderers, with seemingly endless options and few signs. All flat (though with little shade), this relaxing and ultra-convenient, kid-friendly escape can reward visitors with sightings of pelicans, herons and ducks, not to mention raccoons and cottontails. Open from dawn ‘til dusk year-round, San Joaquin Marsh is accessed from Campus Drive and Riparian View.

TOP OF THE WORLD (Laguna Beach)

Officially named Alta Laguna Park, Top of the World soars some 1,000 feet above Laguna Beach, with views of much of O.C. on a clear day (or at least out to sea and inland toward Aliso Viejo). The hiking/biking trails here include easy options (like West Ridge and Oak Grove), moderately strenuous workouts (such as Mathis Canyon), and a few downright difficult stretches (such as the short-but-rocky Car Wreck trail, featuring the incongruous remains of a 1946 Dodge coupe). Dripping Cave trail leads to the eponymous overhang where hikers can grab a shaded rest or picnic. It can get busy here, and proper hiking boots or trail shoes are recommended. Parking is at 3299 Alta Laguna Blvd.

TURTLE ROCK / FRENCH HILL LOOP

This ultra-convenient, 4.2-mile urban/scenic stroll offers not only some of the best land/sea vistas anywhere in Irvine, but also peeks of the gorgeous homes and pools of the prestigious Turtle Rock Summit neighborhood. While Turtle Rock / French Hill can be tackled in sneakers, there are some steep, boulder-strewn scrambles (though even these can be circumvented). A combination of dirt and paved paths, this trail is heavily trafficked, with leashed dogs welcome. Hardly a “wild” experience – most of the near views are of low brush or manicured housing tracts – it’s nonetheless a calves-toning workout in the heart of town, with the most popular of numerous starting points being the corner of Turtle Rock Drive and Concordia Way.

Peters Canyon Regional Park – Photo courtesy of O.C. Parks

PETERS CANYON REGIONAL PARK (Orange)

The 340 acres of Peters Canyon Regional Park are well worth the short drive for Irvine hikers, with its diverse array of trails and graded roads. Home to the substantial Upper Peters Canyon Reservoir and Peters Canyon Creek, the park hosts all manner of wildlife, including hawks, smaller amphibians, mule deer, bobcats and, yes, snakes. There’s something for everyone here, including the 2.5-mile Peters Canyon Lake View Trail (which lives up to its name, yet has only 203 feet of elevation gain), and the heavily-trafficked, 5.9-mile Peters Canyon Loop Trail, which presents a moderately strenuous challenge through undulating terrain. Open 7 a.m. through sunset, the park is located at 8548 Canyon View Ave. in Orange.

QUAIL LOOP TRAIL

Ideal for a swift dog or power walk, even on your lunch break, Quail Loop is a couple of miles of natural-surface trail around the base of Quail Hill. The only wilderness trail in the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks that allows dogs (on leashes), it offers great views of Saddleback and of Irvine itself. Birds are plentiful – quail, of course, plus western meadowlark, hummingbirds and more – especially near the wetland area at the loop’s start. A free cell phone audio tour, featuring experts explaining significant features, is available (dial 949-743-5943). Quail Hill Trailhead, at 34 Shady Canyon Dr., is also the perfect place to connect to southern Irvine’s broader network of hiking trails.

EL MORO CANYON LOOP TRAIL (Laguna Beach)

One of 28 trails totaling 18 miles in Crystal Cove State Park, this well-maintained 5-mile loop through El Moro Canyon repays an 800-foot climb with sweeping coastal views and colorful wildflowers. Rated moderate overall, it includes only one sweat-breaking ascent. While the trail through 2,400 acres of coastal sage scrub is mostly shadeless, an ocean breeze fans even the hottest of hikes. Expect to see plentiful bunnies, birds and maybe even a twilight coyote before descending back to more than three miles of beach, which can be enjoyed on the same day pass (the park also includes four overnight campsites). Crystal Cove State Park is at 8471 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach. Day-use parking is $15/vehicle (or $5/hour).

Cyrstal Cove State Park backcountry – Photo courtesy of Crystal Cove Conservancy

WOODBRIDGE TRAIL

The relaxed, paved 1.7-mile out-and-back Woodbridge Trail is a favorite of families, dog owners, joggers and casual walkers, with a pleasant lake-side stretch and views of nearby mountains which shift with every curve. For the more ambitious, Woodbridge can also form part of a lengthier jaunt, connecting as it does with both the Freeway and San Diego Creek trails. Though it also traverses a neighborhood, the meandering pathway offers brief escape from urban sprawl on its way through a field and alongside North Lake. Almost literally flat (just a 29-foot elevation gain), its supremely civilized hiking experience is completed by the restrooms, barbecues, picnic table and drinking fountains near the parking at Mike Ward Community Park (20 Lake Rd.)

SHADY CANYON TRAIL

With both paved and dirt paths, this 7.8-mile out-and-back trail questions the dividing line between “hiking” and just “walking,” as it bisects both housing tracts and open ground. Whatever you call it, Shady Canyon Trail is a safe and non-stressful way to stretch your legs over 574 feet of elevation gain without the need of specialized attire or equipment (though a hat and sunscreen are recommended, as there’s little shade). Also well trafficked by bikers and even inline skaters (and wheelchair accessible), there’s a sense of community connection here that most of the more rugged local trails lack. Shady Canyon Trail shares a trailhead and parking with Quail Hill Trail (see above) at 34 Shady Canyon Dr.